EU moves on with Balkan countries despite treaty setback

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The EU yesterday (17 June) opened two new pre-EU accession negotiation chapters with Croatia and Turkey, just one day after the Union’s foreign ministers signed an important pre-accession agreement with Bosnia, attenuating fears that the Irish referendum could have a negative impact on the bloc’s enlargement process.

With the two new policy areas – free movement of workers and social policy and employment – 20 of the 35 “chapters” have been opened with Croatia since the start of negotiations in October 2005. 

Speaking after the conference, Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel expressed hope that all chapters could be closed by the end of the year. “It’s possible. I wish this possibility would become reality,” said Rupel, whose country holds the EU Presidency until 30 June. 

“The EU is ready for Croatia,” Rupel pointed out, backed by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who said the pace of the negotiations would depend entirely on Croatia. 

Addressing fears that the failed Irish referendum (EURACTIV 13/06/08) and the now uncertain future of the EU reform treaty, which was designed to provide a new basis for further enlargement, could delay or even prevent Croatia’s EU accession, both made clear that the process would continue regardless. 

“Even if there was a complete failure of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty […] we could solve the issue of Croatia’s membership appropriately. I think Croatia could become a member regardless of the Lisbon Treaty,” said Rupel. 

As regards Turkey, the minister also emphasised that Turkey’s EU integration progress depended “above all on the country itself”. He praised recent progress, including the revision of the controversial article 301 in the country’s Penal Code, which outlaws any criticism of Turkish identity (EURACTIV 08/04/08). But he also said much would depend on how these changes were implemented.

The two meetings followed another key development in the bloc’s enlargement calendar. Indeed, on Monday (16 June), the EU foreign ministers signed a long-delayed Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia, which is considered the first concrete step towords future membership. Ministers also stressed the European perspective of other Western Balkan countries.

“We will work on the acceleration of Serbia’s EU integration,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the daily Dnevnik after the meeting. According to Serbian press reports, the country could see itself granted candidate status by EU leaders at the summit this week (19-20 June), although EU government officials told EURACTIV that the rumour was unfounded.

According to Kouchner, European ministers first want to see a government in Belgrade that is “fully committed to the EU perspective”. Talks on a new government are still ongoing in Serbia following elections in May (EURACTIV 13/05/08), but according to the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, there is a “60-70% chance” that Serbia will have a democratic pro-European government by the end of June (EURACTIV 13/06/08), formed by the Tadic Democratic party and the Socialists. 

Ministers also reiterated the clear membership perspective for Macedonia although Greece remains a staunch opponent, making its approval of Macedonia’s accession conditional on the country changing its name, which it claims should be reserved for a Northern Greek region. 

“The issue of the name of the country is still flying like a ghost over the whole discussions,” Swedish EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstrom told reporters.

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